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Pol Pot killed while world stood by Death closes chapter on the 'Killing Fields'

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Pol Pot's death closes a horrific chapter in Southeast Asia's recent past. But it also recalls an inglorious moment in American history.

As Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge forces killed perhaps 2 million fellow Cambodians in pursuit of their bizarre agrarian utopia from 1975 to 1979, the United States stood by passively, immobilized by a post-Vietnam aversion to foreign entanglements.

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"There was no response," said Morton Abramowitz, ambassador neighboring Thailand in the late 1970s. "The world has never stopped genocide anywhere, and Cambodia is no exception."

Pol Pot has often been reported dead, but this time his death was confirmed.

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"There is no question that this is Pol Pot and that he is dead," Nate Thayer of the Far Eastern Economic Review, who knew Pol Pot and was one of two reporters to see the body, told radio interviewers.

In Washington, State Department spokesman James P. Rubin said: "We have no reason to dispute the rather compelling reports of his death."

Pol Pot was denounced by his former Khmer Rouge colleagues last year, tried at their jungle headquarters and sentenced to life imprisonment. Film of the trial, the first public glimpse of Pol Pot -- in years, showed a limping, defeated-looking old man.

When he died Wednesday at age 73 in a hut on the Thai-Cambodian border, the U.S. government was looking for ways to capture him and bring him to trial before an international tribunal.

Backed by human rights groups, the State Department declared yesterday that it would pursue efforts to bring other Khmer Rouge leaders to justice.

"Although Pol Pot was the most notorious leader, the Khmer Rouge regime had a collective leadership," Rubin said. "The senior leaders fully share responsibility for what occurred, and those responsible for crimes of that kind should be prosecuted."

This assertive stance follows stepped up world attention to human rights abuses and Western embarrassment about its failure to respond quickly and forcefully to recent cases of genocide in Bosnia and Rwanda.

But at the time Pol Pot's peasant army cemented its hold on Cambodia after toppling the U.S.-backed Lon Nol government on April 17, 1975, 23 years ago today, there was less international attention to human rights and much less embarrassment.

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At the time, the United States was withdrawing its remaining troops and diplomats from what was then South Vietnam. The fall of Saigon, the final episode in the humiliating American defeat by Vietnamese Communists, was less than two weeks away.

The withdrawal ended a war that had deeply divided America and created strong opposition to military intervention abroad.

In neighboring Cambodia, which had been descending into turmoil since U.S. policies destabilized it in 1970 as part of American Vietnam strategy, Pol Pot's revolution received heavy news coverage at first. Then, in mid-1975, it "virtually dropped out of the news," according to Jamie Frederic Metzl in a study titled "Western Responses to Human Rights Abuses in Cambodia 1975-80."

The first detailed accounts of atrocities appeared in Le Monde of Paris in February 1976 and in Reader's Digest the next year.

The reports gained the attention of those who had favored the U.S. intervention in Vietnam and who had predicted a bloodbath there in the event of U.S. withdrawal. Some opponents of the war tended to discount the reports that the revolution had turned murderous.

"In the absence of hard evidence, Cambodia became something of a Rorschach test for those observing it, whose different perceptions grew out of divisions which had characterized the war years," wrote Metzl, now a White House fellow.

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President Gerald R. Ford, who made the decision to withdraw U.S. troops from South Vietnam, recalled in a telephone interview yesterday that "by the time we got word in 1976, it was a fait accompli" in Cambodia.

Any intervention was politically unrealistic, he said.

"After the tragedy of us being kicked out of South Vietnam, there was a general revulsion against the United States leaping back into that peninsula.

"People don't realize how venomous public opinion was," he said.

While the United States paid little attention, the killing and deprivation in Cambodia continued for several years.

'Out of the question'

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Ford's successor, Jimmy Carter, who took office in 1977, was unavailable yesterday for comment, but his national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, laughed derisively when asked if military intervention was possible at the time. Given the political mood, intervention was "out of the question," he said.

"I don't think anyone in this country was prepared to do anything about it other than complain to the Chinese," he said.

China was the closest ally of the Khmer Rouge.

In 1977, Reader's Digest published a book and a condensed version in its magazine titled "Murder of a Gentle Land" by John Barron and Anthony Paul. It reported that "a pitiless terror has emptied the cities and turned the villages, fields and jungles into charnel houses where unburied corpses lie putrefying in the sun. The numbers of dead are staggering."

Strategic concerns

Although Carter placed heavy emphasis on human rights in his foreign policy, the United States had strategic concerns in Asia -- notably, curbing Soviet influence in the region, opposing expansionism by its ally, Vietnam, and improving ties to China.

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In 1978, Abramowitz, the ambassador in Bangkok, Thailand, cabled Washington: "Neither the Khmers nor the world would miss Pol Pot. Nonetheless, the independence of Kampuchea dTC [Cambodia], particularly its freedom from a significant Hanoi presence or complete domination is a matter of importance to U.S."

When Vietnam invaded Cambodia at the end of 1978 and ousted Pol Pot early the next year, the United States drew no satisfaction from the toppling of a genocidal regime but set out to oppose what it denounced as aggression by a Soviet-backed Vietnamese regime.

A grim alliance

Supporting anyone who opposed the new Hanoi-backed puppet government, the United States backed a grim alliance of convenience between exiled Prince Norodom Sihanouk and the Khmer Rouge.

After his ouster, Pol Pot slipped out of sight for a decade. But U.S. policy more or less remained unchanged throughout the 1980s until the Bush administration, which shifted gears in 1990 to prevent the Khmer Rouge's return to power.

By then, Americans had become aware of the Khmer Rouge's carnage in Cambodia through the 1984 Academy Award-winning movie "The Killing Fields."

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Among those who saw it was Gerald Ford.

"It made me sick," he said yesterday.

Pub Date: 4/17/98


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